Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Shocked and Awed

In the past few months, two major California arts organizations (American Musical Theater of San Jose and Opera Pacific) have folded. Two more  (Magic Theater and Shakespeare Santa Cruz) barely made it off life support. Others have cancelled their seasons (Sacramento Ballet, Santa Clarita Symphony) as they struggle to survive. Meanwhile, opera companies, museums, and many other nonprofits have been cutting staff, trimming hours, and battening down the hatches to ride out the economic storm.

People are understandably wary of surprises these days. With the economy in the toilet, foreclosures rampant, and climate change accelerating, there are moments when no news may actually seem like good news. But every now and then, an unexpected blessing rises up and demands to be taken seriously.

On Sunday afternoon I attended a matinee by a new and exciting Bay area theater company that staged one of the best musical productions I've seen in years. Think about that for a second! Against all odds -- and with legions of Chicken Littles squawking that the sky is falling -- the new kid on the block pulled a big, cuddly rabbit out of its hat! I'm talking about the newly-formed Berkeley Playhouse, whose Artistic Director, Elizabeth McKoy, chose a first season consisting of:
  1. Roald Dahl's The BFG,
  2. Once On This Island -- a reworking of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, The Little Mermaid -- with a Caribbean beat furnished by the songwriting team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (who also created Ragtime and Seussical),
  3. The musical version of J. M. Barrie's classic tale of the boy who wouldn't grow up -- Peter Pan.
Imagine my astonishment at seeing the front wall of the Ashby Stage repainted to reflect the show's theme and the unexpected thrill of experiencing a production so solid that it could easily have held its own against any musical on Broadway.

Anthony Rollins-Mullins, Melinda Meeng, Zendaya Maree
Stoermer-Coleman, Victoria Morgan, and Ricardo Villanos III 
(Photo by Ralph Granich)

Featuring a talented multi-ethnic cast under the direction of Kimberly Dooley, Once On This Island (which received eight Tony nominations after its Broadway premiere in 1990) completely took me by surprise. This was a totally professional production with top-notch singing by a skilled ensemble that, literally, did not miss a beat. I was particularly impressed with the lively and detailed choreography by Dane Paul Andres. Robert Broadfoot's appealing unit set and Valera Coble's costume designs added tropical color and a sense of Caribbean casualness to the proceedings.

Ricardo Villanos III, Alexis Papedo, and
Michael Mohammed (Photo by Ralph Granich)

Probably the biggest shock of the evening came from the acoustics inside the Ashby Stage. Having seen numerous dramatic productions here by Crowded Fire Theatre Company and Shotgun Players, I was amazed at how well a musical sounds in this auditorium. Under Phil Gorman's musical direction, the vibrant and robust voices of Victoria Morgan (Ti Moone) and Anthony Rollins-Mullins (Tonton) handsomely filled the theater. Strong characterizations backed by solid musicianship came from Erika Bowman (Mama), Andrea Brembry (Asaka), Gilberto J. Esqueda (Papa Ge), Melinda Meeng (Andrea), Michael Mohammed (Armand), Brenda Simon (Daniel), Alexis Papedo (Erzulie), Ricardo Villanoss III (Agwe), and Zendaya Maree Stoermer-Coleman (Little Ti Moone).

Victoria Morgan and Anthony Rollins-Mullins
(Photo by Ralph Granich)

Often, when one attends a performance by a new community theater group, one expects to make allowances for the quality of the production. Such was not the case with Berkeley Playhouse's production of Once On This Island, which was every bit as good (if not better) than some productions Carol Shorenstein Hays has brought to town. I can't wait to see what they do with Peter Pan.

* * * * * * *

For many years people have heard the statement "Unto us a child is born" without ever thinking about exactly who or what the next child to merit that kind of attention might be. But in Jennifer Phang's mind-bending debut feature film, Half-Life (which will be shown next month at the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival), we get a spooky inkling of what lies ahead.

Mysterious and slightly creepy children have been featured in many a tale of the paranormal. However, Phang's appealingly wide-eyed tyke doesn't vomit split pea soup as his head spins around. Nor does he need to rely on a covert marketing campaign to hide the film's ending (the way folks got snookered into buying tickets for M. Night Shyamalan's psychological thriller, The Sixth Sense, back in 1999).

As embodied by the talented young Alexander Agate, Timothy Wu will move you. In more ways than you could ever imagine.

Phang's film justifiably created a stir when shown at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Why? If you took the bitterness of suburban alienation showcased by Alan Ball in American Beauty, mixed it with the unworldly chills of Rod Serling's legendary TV series Twilight Zone, threw in some defiant teenage rebelliousness from Queer As Folk, seasoned it all with hoisin sauce, garnished it with some stunning animation sequences, and then topped it all off with an ending that could rival Contact or 2001: A Space Odyssey, you'd get a hint of Half-Life's dramatic power.


Set in Diablo Valley against a background of depression, confusion, manipulation, and wonder, Half-Life focuses on two families connected in more ways than anyone might suspect. In one family, a well-meaning preacher (James Eckhouse) and his clueless wife (Susan Ruttan) are struggling to communicate with their adopted Asian teenage son Scott (Leonardo Nam) who, after his parents finish saying grace at the dinner table, tries to shock them by relating how much he likes to get fucked in the ass by black men. When the preacher suggests that the time may have come to reassess things, Scott replies "Reassess what? My rectum?"

Scott's best friend, Pam (Sanoe Lake), is a tortured young Asian woman who has never recovered from the fact that her father, a pilot, walked out on his family and never returned. To keep in touch with his memory, she does janitorial work cleaning a hangar for small private planes. Pam is starting to have mixed feelings about her mother's charming and suspiciously coercive live-in boyfriend Wendell (Ben Redgrave) who, although handsome as an All-American male model, has some really creepy problems respecting people's boundaries.

Pam's mother Saura (Julia Nickson-Soul), who is totally stressed out by her job and family problems, could really use some time by herself. Among her many challenges is the care and nurturing of her sensitive young son, who is beginning to show signs of being artistically gifted. Unbeknownst to his family, Timothy is also developing an eerie talent for telekinesis.

When Timothy's teacher, Jonah Robertson (Lee Marks) expresses concern about the child's inappropriate comments in the classroom, his phone call to Saura triggers an unexpected chain of events. In addition to being Timothy's teacher, Jonah has also been fucking Scott. Let's just say that when all of these people show up at a suburban barbecue, complications ensue.


The action in Half-Life unfolds against a background of cable news reports about one disaster after another. With increased speculation about the ominous effects of global climate change, a series of solar flares that have destroyed a Russian spaceship, and reports about an ongoing epidemic of domestic violence, the media has been pushing the fear factor to a point where people are starting to believe these incidents may indeed signal the end of the world.

As a writer and director, Phang has woven a magnificent tale of deceit, dysfunction and discovery that enhances a narrative filled with angst and awe and channels its moments of escape into sublime fantasy. She is greatly helped by Aasuly Wolf Austad's cinematography as well as a talented team of animators.

There is a hypnotic quality to watching the personal tensions build in Phang's film that makes you feel as if you are watching a cataclysmic accident about to happen (without the power to stop it). Rather than reveal the ending, I'll just stress that this isn't merely a well-written, well-made Indie film. Half-Life is a fucking phenomenal movie. Here's the trailer:

1 comment:

dane.paul.andres said...

Hi, this is Dane Paul Andres. I choreographed 'Once On This Island' at Berkeley Playhouse. Thank you for the great review. I'm choroegraphing Disney's Aladdin at Berkeley Playhouse and it opens this weekend. I'd like to invite you to come see the show.